- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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NORMAN, Okla. -- It’s hard to remember now, but just two springs ago, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called then-sophomore linebacker Corey Nelson the “best player” on his defense and said “it’s not close.”
Nelson is a senior now. And, finally, it appears the Sooners are going to give him the opportunity to deliver on Stoops’ proclamation.
“I’m really looking forward to playing again,” Nelson said. “(Not playing) has ignited a fire under me.”
Nelson has reason to have fire in his belly this spring.
After a promising freshman campaign followed by that dominating spring, Nelson figured to be on the cusp of stardom two seasons ago.
Sporadic playing time since, though, has stymied Nelson’s development -- to the point he thought of joining fellow linebacker Tom Wort and leaving Oklahoma.
“We had conversations, multiple conversations, just throughout the season, just talking about how frustrated he was, and how frustrated I was at times,” Nelson said.
Those frustrations stemmed from the Sooners’ defensive regime change from Brent Venables to Mike Stoops.
While Venables built his defenses around his linebackers, Mike Stoops consigned Wort and Nelson to plugging gaps and funneling tackles to the safeties.
Then, when the Sooners began facing the high-powered spread offenses of the Big 12 late in the season, Mike Stoops took the linebackers off the field altogether. The ploy backfired, and Oklahoma’s run defense capitulated as the Sooners allowed more than 40 points in three of their final four games.
“I got down on myself, not playing as much,” Nelson said. “It wore on my confidence, and I’m sure they saw that.”
To their credit, Mike Stoops and linebackers coach Tim Kish privately confessed to Nelson after Thanksgiving that they had “tampered” with the defense too much. Then at the advent of spring ball, Mike Stoops publicly acknowledged those missteps, again.
“Our scheme did a little bit of an injustice to our linebackers a year ago,” he said. “And we’re gonna try to keep two linebackers on the field as much as we can.
So far this spring, he has made good on his word, providing Nelson and the other linebackers a new lease on life.
“The coaches have shown that we are going to play a lot more,” Nelson said. “It’s helped our confidence knowing that we are going to be out there on both passing downs and in run situations.
The coaches appear to be excited about linebackers again, too -- and with good reason.
In Nelson, Frank Shannon, and backups Eric Striker and Aaron Franklin, the Sooners have a quartet of athletic, potentially playmaking linebackers. Shannon has flashed plenty of potential in limited game action. Franklin tore up Oklahoma’s winter conditioning session. And Striker was one of the top signees from OU's 2012 recruiting class.
“It’s fun again out there,” Nelson said. “Coach Kish and Coach Mike have put their faith and trust in us again to get things done. And the linebackers, we are all pushing each other to get the job done.”
While the other three linebackers figure to have prominent roles, the Sooners have special plans in place for Nelson, who said he’s been lining up all over the field, including defensive end in obvious passing downs.
“I’m not sure we ever thought we’d get to play again,” Nelson said. “It’s been refreshing being out there and hitting somebody again.”
4dBrandon Chatmon and Jake Trotter